Two days after kind words were exchanged between the Bears and estranged linebacker Brian Urlacher, the first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will see his uniform number worn no more as the Bears announced early Friday that Mike Ditka’s No. 89 will be retired at halftime of the Dec. 9 game against the Dallas Cowboys in Soldier Field.
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Ditka defined the tight end position after the Bears made him the fifth-overall pick of the 1961 draft out of Pittsburgh where he had starred at both offensive and defensive end. He played six seasons in Chicago, earning Pro Bowl honors in five, and was brought back in 1982 by George Halas to make over the persona of a team in decline since Ditka had left in 1967.
Ditka was fired after the 1992 season and went on to coach the New Orleans Saints for several years. But he made no secret that he was a Bear for all time. Friday’s move, coming shortly after Urlacher’s retirement announcement and accompanying conciliatory statements by both sides, brings proper closure to another of the great Chicago careers.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Ditka said. “It’s something that I didn’t anticipate or expect, but it’s a great honor…It’s the consummation of a career. It’s one of the greatest things you could be honored with.”
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Ditka was a teammate of Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, both with their numbers retired on Oct. 31, 1994. “When you mention [Gale] Sayers and [Dick] Butkus and some of the guys who have had their jerseys retired, it’s an unbelievable group of men and great players in the NFL and for the Chicago Bears…It’s just fantastic and I’m very honored and very pleased. I can honestly say that if it wouldn’t have happened, it wouldn’t have mattered because the joy I had from playing with the Bears was unbelievable. I had a lot of fun doing what I did. I had a great career and a great time.”
Chicago legend on the move
Ditka was traded away by Halas to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for quarterback Jack Concannon. Halas hired him back as coach 15 years later for precisely the same reasons laid out Friday by Bears Chairman George McCaskey for retiring No. 89.
“Mike Ditka embodies the spirit of everything the Bears are about,” McCaskey said. “He’s an icon. The last time we won the championship Mike Ditka was our coach and the last time we won before that Mike Ditka was a player. The organization knew it was the right thing to do.
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“He revolutionized the tight end position as a player and grabbed an entire franchise by the throat as a head coach and willed it to victory in the Super Bowl. We have more retired numbers than any other team in the NFL. After this, we do not intend to retire any more numbers but we thought if there is going to be a last one, there is no more appropriate one than 89.”
The standard for tight ends
Ditka is the only player in the NFL’s modern era to win a title with the same team as both a player (1963) and head coach (1985). He was named NFL rookie of the rear in 1961 after hauling in 56 receptions for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns and finished his Bears career with 316 receptions for 4,503 yards (14.3 ypc) and 34 touchdowns.
Ditka went on to play six more seasons with the Eagles (1967-68) and Dallas Cowboys (1969-72) and finished his NFL career with 427 receptions for 5,812 yards (13.6 ypc) and 43 touchdowns. As a Cowboys player, he helped the team to their Super Bowl VI title.
After his playing career, Ditka was an assistant coach for the Cowboys from 1973-81 and was a part of their coaching staff when they won Super Bowl XII.
Ditka coached the Bears to 112 overall wins (106-62 in the regular season, 6-6 in the playoffs), seven winning seasons, six NFC Central titles, three NFC Championship games and Chicago’s Super Bowl XX victory.
Ditka’s 106 regular season victories are second most in franchise history and his six playoff victories are tied for the most with. He was twice voted the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year (1985 and 1988).
In 1988 he became the first tight end ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His No. 89 is the 14th jersey number to be retired by the Chicago Bears joining, No. 3 (Bronko Nagurski), 5 (George McAfee), 7 (George Halas), 28 (Willie Galimore), 34 (Walter Payton), 40 (Gale Sayers), 41 (Brian Piccolo), 42 (Sid Luckman), 51 (Dick Butkus), 56 (Bill Hewitt), 61 (Bill George), 66 (Clyde “Bulldog” Turner) and 77 (Harold “Red” Grange).